Root of Self Portraits: Basquiat meets Lam

Jean-Michel Basquiat by Tseng Kwong Chi

In the art world, self portraits are a tool of personal expression. Often an artist’s work can capture how one represents themselves, in addition to how they believe others perceive them. For Jean Michel Basquiat and Wifredo Lam self portraits brought great meaning, influence, and vision in how they wanted their art to represent themselves as individuals.

Wifredo Lam, 1963

Art for each artist has brought to life the purpose to be seen as more than just artists, but rather children of African descent whose art and lives were so deeply influenced by their own culture.

At root in Basquiat and Lam’s self portraits is an expression of Afro Centric culture.

Afrocentrism focuses on the history of Africa and African people in representation of the past and its historical culture and influence of today. It challenges the intellectual teachings of African culture in a period of Eurocentric dominance, and highlights the success of civilizations and people of African descent. “Afrocentrism insistently questions this eloquent certitude and emphasizes instead the necessarily contingent status of the Eurocentric”(Olaniyan). This expression plays an important element in the work of how African Artist are able to show their own struggle and history with race, identity and culture.

From the beginning, work labeled as “Afro Centric” was often defined by its cultural symbols, ethnic representations, and African details, such as African Masks. Many of these works were often classified in theme under what would be known as Negritude, including the work of various black artists, and Wifredo Lam and Jean Michel Basquiat.

Wifredo Lam was a Cuban Artist heavily involved in socialism and his Afro Cuban influence of the 1940’s, an historical period of change, social issues, and war. In his biography, Lam strived to bring forward the chaos and disruption of his own people, including the Carribean and the growing ethnic awareness in Latin America. The Caribbean struggle partook in the afrocentrism movement by highlighting the depiction of culture in afro-latin countries, in comparison to the Euro Centrism era of art during the time.

Your Own Life, Lam, 1942.

For Lam’s “Your Own Life” (1942), the mask itself draws the viewer’s focus to this type African culture expression. In the painting, a strong male figure exerts the presence of power and dominance as well as expresses the sorrow of the past. Strength is extremely visible, as the male dominates in the middle as one who is ready for war or confrontation. In the harshness of the life beside him, his body is painted bright and distinct. Lined with such detail in comparison to the rest of the painting, the figures strength expresses the African male’s duty to defend himself and his own people. Relating to Wifredo’s need to do so for his own in Cuba, as he often depicted in his paintings. Although extremely strong, vibrant, and beautiful, the dark colors within the background indicate a much less happier story of remembering one’s past. This includes Wifredo Lam’s own life and culture of Afro Cuban influences and struggle. The sorrow of a painful past can be seen in the way Lam depicts the woman behind him. Her facial outline is distinct but leaves little attention to her body and who she is as a person. Is she forgetten? She in a sense is unfinished in comparison to the male, as if she is merely only a dark or forgetten part of him. The sorrow continues as the dark blues, greys, and blacks indicate mourning of a time where the figure protected or once had all that is behind him.

Cuban Colonization Era — General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, 1804.

Elements of African Culture played a key importance of how Wifredo Lam developed his art as a means to unify both his power and loss. Shortly after his wife and son’s death in 1931, he hit a low period in his art that evolved into the dark, twisted figures he is most famous for. “Digusted, revolted, and neglectful,”(Bibliography) how he described his own work, as it became a difficult state of despair and sorrow for the artist. His portrait, “ Your Own Life” indicates his want to unify his life, experiences, and influences of both Cuban and European lifestyles together as one while experiencing a dark state of mind. He is in fact a part of his own art, as an Afro Cuban, an artist, and foreign figure. The darkness fades into the background indicating one’s feelings of being lost in a world without those influences or person to keep him together.

For Jean Michel Basquiat, his Afro centric expression was driven from the struggle of being an African American male and an African American artist during the rise of Eurocentric art culture.

Young Basquiat was an eccentric artist that was known for his art involving the Neo-Expression movement of 1980’s New York. His work was often expressed as dark and disturbed but always stood out with his depiction of the male figure and the social justices and wrong doing among the black community. “Basquiat’s paintings…expose and speak of the anguish of sacrifice. A text of absence and loss, they echo the sorrow of what has been given over and given up” (Bellhooks 440). His art demonstrates the hardship and loss that often came with being black in a society that stereotyped him and people of color as disruptive rebels. With his punk rock manner, Basquiat became quickly famous for his artistic pieces, first known as SAMO, where social issues were the main focus of his detail and craft.

“Self Portrait as A Heel” Basquiat, 1982.

In Basquiat’s “Self Portrait as a Heel” 1982, he resembles his own face as a disrupted African Mask that has seen fear, anger and corruption. Similar to the face protrayed in Lam’s “Your Own Life”, the Afro Centric use of traditional masks often indicate war and male dominance. In Basquiat’s, “Self Portrait as a Heel”, the eyes clench on the body upheld by chaos and labeled with a number indiciting he is among many. This number leaves to question if Basquiat was indicating the mass incarceration of black male youths and its similar state to the slave trade period of black slaves. The gripped tightly blue shackles around the figures neck and bar-like restraints under the label “ACE COMBS” indicate the figure is being weighed down by this oppression. He is being stripped of his own character, and is angered by the state already place upon him without choice. It is a cry for help presented in sadness and the urge to fight against the concept. Basquiat is expressing the frustation towards social issues of African Americans and that their is a clear and visible sense of anger in the eyes of being seen as just another black male in the world.

Jean Michel Basquiat, knew he was unique but dealt with the pressure of white art culture. It was exteremely difficult for him to not be compared or stand out against the norm, in which Afrocentrism strived to shine light on as well as other standards and hardships endured by those of color. Elements of African culture played a key importance in how Basquait expressed his message because he wanted the people to understand how his roots formed him as an artist. By labeling himself, he is allowing viewers to see truly how African Americans are stereotyped as just another rebellion, the antagonist, or heel.

In a sense, this stereotype does in fact define him as it connects him deeply to his past. The relationship between the African black male, and the new generation of black males are one in the eyes of Basquiat. He longs to be tied to both but not defined by the tradegy that so often brings the two together historically from the days of slavery and trade. Basquiat plays with self portraits in order to create a new vision and perspective to those captivated by Euro Centric art. To wake them up and allow them to feel what is like to be a black male in a society that so often describes being black as negative and a rebellious illusion.

Wifredo Lam/Jean-Michel Basquiat, image from the exhibit gallery

Basquiat Meets Lam: The Finale Expression

Comparing two greatly talented, influential, and unique artists for their artistic expression, alone, is more difficult than one would think and even almost unfair.

Both Jean Michel Basquiat and Wifredo Lam were so great in their art, that it is feels impossible to compare such passion and self expression to one another. Through self portraits, Lam and Basquait found influence in their roots of Afro-centric and Afro Cuban expression. By doing so they each brought forward the struggle and hardship still faced by the descendants of those before them. They unify in their artistic expression of showing the impact of what was and still is endured by the African community.

Wifredo Lam’s art focused on the Afro Cuban struggle and growing ethnic awarness of Latin American countries. His vision was to introduce to the world of Euro Centric Art, the social issues occuring outside of Europe during a period of war and drastic change. Jean Michel Basquiat’s, art focused on portaying the African male as more than what society wanted to see them. He broke the barrier of Euro Centric art at a time of necessary change for the African community and great criticism.

The importance of expressing Afrocentrisim for both artists was to bring a story that another may never see, understand, or feel. Lam and Basquiat both express memories, loss, and frustration and give more than just a standard face to look at, when seeing their self portraits. Their portraits, make you think. Make you wonder…Does Afrocentrism bring influence and meaning that we as people, have forgotten? And who will these incredible artist (as no one will ever compare)…inspire next.

Work Cited

Hooks, Bell. “Altars of Sacrifice Re-membering Basquiat.” Art of My Mind. New York City: New, n.d. 44. Print.

“THE GOOD IN AFROCENTRISM.” AFROCENTRISM. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2015. <http://www.africanholocaust.net/news_ah/afrocentrism.html>.

“Négritude.” Négritude. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2015. <http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-negritude.html>.

“Neo-Expressionism Movement, Artists and Major Works.” The Art Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2015. <http://www.theartstory.org/movement-neo-expressionism.htm>.

OLANIYAN, TEJUMOLA. “Discussing Afrocentrism.” Discussing Afrocentrism. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2015. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/passages/4761530.0003.005/--discussing-afrocentrism?rgn=main%3Bview>.

“Wifredo Lam [Chronology 1923–1938].” Wifredo Lam [Chronology 1923–1938]. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2015. <http://www.wifredolam.net/en/chronology/1923-1938.html>.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrocentrism>.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heel_%28professional_wrestling%29>.

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